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Did the American People Really Vote for Moderation?

Leonard Williams

Neil Wollman

 

 

Not According to an Analysis of the Races Run by House Incumbents

in the 1994 and 1996 Elections

 

Another election, another myth. Before Americans once again swallow the claims of political pundits, let's take a look at what actually happens to incumbents running for reelection to the U.S. House of Representatives.

In 1994, the conventional wisdom regarding that year's Republican sweep was that voters had decisively rejected old-style liberalism. Upon closer analysis, though, moderate Democratic incumbents were more likely to lose their bids for reelection than were liberal ones. This effect was most evident in marginal districts, where Democrats had won narrowly in 1992. What was true regarding won/loss records was also true with regard to the proportion of votes Democratic incumbents received. Here again, liberals had been more successful than moderates. Over the last two House elections, liberal Democratic incumbents have won 95% of their reelection efforts--hardly a rejection of their ideology.

Now that the 1996 election has come and gone, the conventional wisdom for this year is that voters have turned away Republican conservatives because of the extremism associated with Newt Gingrich. In short, the American people are now said to have moved from the rejection of liberals in 1994 to the ejection of extremists in 1996. Once again, the facts don't support this interpretation. Though less decisively than was the case for liberal Democrats in 1994, conservative Republicans were still more likely to win in 1996 than were their moderate counterparts. Indeed, conservatives won a full 94% of their races. Our analysis also shows that conservative Republicans did better than moderate ones even in marginal districts (where the incumbent had received less than 55% of the vote in 1994). As with the Democratic incumbents in 1994, the more ideologically extreme Republican incumbents also received a higher percentage of the vote than did their more moderate colleagues.

Our statistical analysis correlated political ideology (measured by the ratings produced by the American Conservative Union and the Americans for Democratic Action) with electoral outcomes (measured by whether or not an incumbent won or lost a bid for reelection, as well as by the percentage of votes an incumbent received). For the analysis, incumbents from each party were placed into one of four categories--conservative, moderate conservative, moderate liberal, and liberal. We then compared liberals with moderate liberals, among Democratic incumbents, and conservatives with moderate conservatives, among Republicans.

Our work has revealed that when Americans reject incumbent members of Congress, they reject moderates more often than they do liberals or conservatives. And, contrary to conventional wisdom, in the competitive arena of marginal districts, ideology becomes more important, not less so. Incumbents who are at the ends of the ideological spectrum do better than those in the center. Also, for both election years, for both parties, more moderate incumbents garnered fewer votes than did those on the extremes.

No matter what people may say they want, or what analysts say people want, recent election results suggest that voters have not rewarded ideological moderation. Moreover, even if the electorate desires bipartisanship, they likely have not picked the best people to bring it about. Contrary to today's conventional wisdom, the voters seem more comfortable with those on either side of the street than with those in the middle of the road.

 


TABLE 1

OUTCOMES FOR DEMOCRATIC INCUMBENTS IN 1994

          ALL INCUMBENTS      INCUMBENTS IN MARGINAL DISTRICTS

         LIBERAL    MOD. LIB.       LIBERAL      MOD. LIB.

WON      93%       75%              76%           48%

LOST       7%       25%              24%           52%

N          106        96               17             29

 


TABLE 2

OUTCOMES FOR REPUBLICAN INCUMBENTS IN 1996

          ALL INCUMBENTS       INCUMBENTS IN MARGINAL DISTRICTS

       CONSERV.  M0D. CON.          CONSERV.     MOD. CON.

WON       94%      87%                81%            67%

LOST        6%      12%                19%            33%

N          126      61                  21             21

 


Please contact us for a fuller report or if you plan to use this study. Thank you.


This study was conducted by two professors at Manchester College, located in North Manchester, Indiana. Leonard Williams, Professor of Political Science, has published work in the areas of political ideology and campaign advertising. Neil Wollman, Professor of Psychology, has written on the application of psychological principles to the political process.


 
Leonard Williams
Department of History & Political Science
Manchester College
Neil Wollman
Department. of Psychology
Manchester College
N. Manchester, IN 46962

 


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